photo: courtesy of Andy Shay
Big Jones' zucchini with chicory and cranberry.
Fall is here, the harvest is rolling in and nature's bounty is on glorious display at the farmers markets; it's a time when eating produce picked in California and ripened on a truck seems even more ludicrous than usual. But you don't have to cook at home every night to know your meal is fresh from the farm. Some of Chicago's best restaurants are committed to using as many locally grown ingredients as possible—and it isn't all corn bread and applesauce.
Owners Helen and Michael Cameron have self-described "deep roots" with the Green City Market, which has been supplying their Wrigleyville restaurant for years. Now, with the construction of a rooftop micro-farm above the new Edgewater location, Uncommon Ground serves what is arguably the most local produce physically possible. The Uncommon Ground green roof provides greens, cucumbers, peas, tomatoes and herbs to both restaurants with home-harvested honey appearing later this fall. Cameron promises the honey collected from the rooftop hives will grace Chef Brian Millman's creations with minimal adornment, allowing the distinct flavor of their rooftop blend to really come through.
Frontera Grill and Topolobampo
Celebrity chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless may well be the most visible proponent of sustainable agriculture in the Chicago restaurant scene. His legendary Mexican establishments buy from about a dozen food producers across Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, including City Farm, Ken Dunn's half-acre organic farm on the corner of Division and Clybourn that provides fresh, ultra-local food to the public and training to the underemployed. Bayless serves only humanely raised meats—grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, pastured goat—and seafood from sustainable fisheries, so you can feel as good about ordering the Ostiones (oysters served with tomatillo-habanero mionetta) as you do about the Pollo en Crema de Cilantro made with Gunthrop Farm chicken breast.
How can Midwestern agriculture support Coastal Southern and Creole-inspired cuisine? Easily, says chef and owner of Big Jones Paul Fehribach—you may have to forgo the Gulf of Mexico shrimp, but the sorghum-cured pork belly, fried squash blossoms and sweet corn chowder are all close to home. Big Jones restaurant was a participant in last month's Green City Market Localvore Challenge—a summons for restaurants to offer one completely local dish every day for two weeks. Big Jones decided to go one better by serving up decadent, 100-percent local, five-course menus during the challenge. The challenge may be over, but you can visit Big Jones any day of the week to savor upscale, down-home delicacies cooked from all local ingredients.
Craig Charlton, owner/chef of Oak Park's Trattoria 225, was shopping locally long before opening a restaurant. "We wanted to open a restaurant for ourselves—the way we like to eat," Charlton explains—which means three weekly trips to the farmers markets in Oak Park, La Grange and Lincoln Park. Charlton strives to use as many local and organic ingredients as possible; his traditional Italian-style, thin-crust, wood-fired pizzas are tossed with 100-percent organic whole-wheat crust. The Trattoria also has close ties to Keewaydin Farms in Wisconsin; it recently hosted a farm dinner and discussion with the owner of Keewaydin about running a small organic farm. Next spring, the restaurant will serve as a pick-up point for Keewaydin CSA members.
This Lincoln Square gem serves traditional French bistro fare—a delicate cuisine that hinges on the freshest ingredients possible. Chef/owner Michael Altenberg is committed to supporting low-impact, local agriculture in the creation of each plate, from hearty comfort dishes like the Gratin de Macaroni to lighter fare like the Salade Maison. The Bistro is also affiliated with the Chicago chapter of Slow Food International, the world's largest organization dedicated to connecting consumers and sustainable food producers.